Amidst all the fun of laying into Catriona Ruane, one of our other ministerial incompetents seems to have got off very lightly of late. I am of course referring to our dear Health Minister Michael McGimpsey. He has recently been up to a point celebrated by both the BBC and the Belfast Telegraph.Unfortunately as I have previously pointed out the facts are somewhat at variance with this picture. McGimpsey first downgraded the targets to essentially non binding aspirations and then welcomed not actually meeting them as a great success. Also of course the vast majority of the improvements had been made under Direct Rule (not that Mr. McGimpsey wants to tell us that).
Of course there has been significant progress. However, our targets are much less rigorous that the rest of the UKs targets. Hence, not quite achieving the least ambitious NHS targets seems less worthy of public rejoicing.
There are of course also other serious issues facing the Department. Just this week we have been told of the excessive age of a number of ambulances.
Also whilst McGimpsey offers to throw money at a new cancer centre in the North West (not in any way a bad thing of itself) it is unclear whether or not all the expensive cancer drugs available in England are also available in Northern Ireland. As an example of the problems: the new expensive arthritis drugs have required a two year wait in NI which was absent in GB, although that situation seems set to change here (not before time).
Again we see that McGimpsey is very keen on grand gestures. What he is failing to address is one of the major reasons for our problems in Northern Ireland. It is that we have far too many, too small hospitals. McGimpsey (and in fairness Direct Rule ministers before him) have been completely unwilling to address this problem. This produces massive diseconomies of scale which dwarf the savings made by reducing the number of managers in the heath service (not that that is wrong in itself). In addition this refusal to make decisions about hospital numbers means that the Trusts are forced to do so themselves and there is no strategic planning for these inevitable and necessary changes which may well cause severe problems such as the closure of Lagan Valley maternity services. There are also other problems looming to do with reduction in junior doctors hours of work.
Mr. McGimpsey needs to learn that being a good health minister is not merely about announcing nice things and promising money to sort out short term problems but also about making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to improve the long term state of our health service and bring it up to somewhere near the standard it should and could be.